Changes to VET might be good for business, but not for students

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane have unveiled their plan for Vocational Education and Training - but do they really know what they’re doing or should they leave it to the States? AAP

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane yesterday announced funding to engage young people in education and employment, and reforms of apprenticeship support services. This announcement tells us that the government’s priority when it comes to Vocational Education and Training (VET) is not the young person, but businesses.

VET markets have recently been attracting attention, but for the wrong reasons. “Dodgy” providers, poor regulation and TAFE colleges under considerable financial pressure because of government cuts: these are the outcomes of years of uncoordinated and ill-considered national and state VET policies.

Yesterday’s announcements are focused on employers, mostly small-business owners, and community providers engaging the young through wage subsidies and job training. MacFarlane, who has carriage of VET policy in the Abbott government, is treating VET as a labour market strategy and industry subsidy. The announced investment of A$38 million to deliver a Training for Employment Scholarship programme will help regional employers provide job-specific training to the young and unemployed.

Small to medium-sized businesses that take on an unemployed person aged 18-24 will receive funding to pay for up to 26 weeks of training. This policy could be seen as providing six months of employment on a meagre training wage. Combine this with the mooted reforms to welfare and it may mean six months on the dole. This will not engage young people in employment or education in meaningful or long-term ways.

MacFarlane also announced a Youth Employment Pathways programme to help young people in regional areas to identify and successfully start on the path to their chosen career by returning to school, starting vocational education training or moving into the workforce. Only community organisations will be able to apply for funding to deliver support services and training to people between the ages of 15 and 18 who are not in school.

Initially, 3,000 places will be offered to enable community organisations to develop a training plan to meet individual needs such as job-searching skills and industry-specific job training. The principle of supporting young people to re-engage with school and their own education is important socially.

However, the Commonwealth government does not have responsibility for schools, nor does the industry portfolio have any sustained connection with schools operated by state and territory governments. These policy announcements reveal that the Abbott government is being petulantly selective in its engagement with certain VET policy players and providers.

VET better off in state hands

The Abbott government’s approach to VET policy is piecemeal. What MacFarlane described as a “convoluted mess” when taking on VET policy in the industry portfolio is being made messier by these uncoordinated policies, which will be more miss than hit.

The federal VET policy approach lacks coordination - not just between government departments but in its relations with the states too. This only intensifies the difficulties faced by the VET sector generally.

In bypassing the comprehensive VET networks of state governments, including state industry plans and initiatives, and ignoring state government-owned TAFEs, these policies signal that the Abbott government is unprepared or unwilling to lead nationally coordinated policy in the skills, employment and vocational education and training space.

The training market in Australia is far from uniform across states and territories yet has grown significantly to include a breadth of providers. It has been financed through an income-contingent loan system. VET Fee help enables those seeking skills and employment-related education to access the funds to pay for their tuition, which is repaid upon employment at a certain salary level. This is an example of a coordinated policy approach.

The policies announced by MacFarlane, Training for Employment Scholarships, Youth Employment Pathways and the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network, will involve over A$238 million of public funding. This funding will bypass states and territories, which have a track record in coordinating and managing VET provision through complex training markets. These funds will instead go directly to business, community agencies and individuals.

A nationally coordinated approach to VET depends upon funds allocated through these announcements being directed to supporting existing VET approaches that have proven successful.

The funds attached to these policy announcements would be better off being used to work collaboratively with businesses, community organisations and state and territory government agencies. This would ensure a cohesive and cooperative approach to delivering education and skills for employment that works for those who do not, through no fault of their own.